Ready or not, the athletes of the National Hockey League will buckle their chin straps and lace on their skates Friday night to finally begin the long-awaited season.
With only a 48-game scramble for playoff positions, all games will be held within either the Eastern or Western Conferences. The daily divisional standings will be virtually meaningless.
The conference standings will be all-important, because that’s how teams are seeded for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Eight teams from each conference will make the tournament. No Eastern Conference team will meet a Western Conference team until the finals, which will conclude at the end of June.
There will be six non-qualifiers in the 14-team East and four non-qualifiers in the 12-team West. The Eastern teams have a travel edge because they will never leave their time zone. The Western teams have a competitive edge because fewer of them risk playoff elimination.
League-wide, this season’s major questions include:
- How will conditioning affect play?
- What will be the effect of some players having played regularly in Europe or junior leagues while others trained only lightly since October?
- Will new arenas in Chicago and St. Louis help or hurt their teams?
- Will the disappearance of the sport for almost a half-season because of the 15-week lockout hurt the momentum in newly colonized markets like Miami, Tampa, Dallas, Anaheim and San Jose?
- Will the arrival of the Fox television network lift the profile of the sport into the entertainment mainstream?
Each team brings its own questionnaire. Let’s start from the top.
Can the Rangers repeat? Possibly. The short, conference-based season is in their favor because they are an older team and they won’t have to travel as far. It remains to be seen if Mark Messier will sign and return as the team leader. Other questions persist. Can Petr Nedved fit in as a second-line center? Can Sergei Zubov put together a second consecutive scoring explosion? Can Colin Campbell grow into his first head-coaching position? Is Adam Graves fully recovered from serious back surgery? Is Aleksei Kovalev ready for the superstar role his talent suggests? Will Garden president Dave Checketts allow Ranger President and General Manager Neil Smith to run the front office?
Are the Devils ready? Probably not. If any team takes a step back this season, it could be New Jersey. The coaching of Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson can’t totally negate the anti-player efforts of the owner, John McMullen, and the president, Lou Lamoriello, who were two hawks during the labor dispute. With stars like Scott Stevens and John MacLean, role-players like Randy McKay and Ken Daneyko and goaltending depth from Martin Brodeur and Chris Terreri, this should remain one of the league’s best teams.
Will Brett Lindros help? Maybe. Although not a natural goal-scorer, he netted 24 in 26 games with his junior team in Kingston this season. He gives them size and toughness.” On defense, Vladimir Malakhov must show more consistency. Scott Lachance has to prove he wasn’t another of this franchise’s litany of over-rated first-round picks. If Jamie McLennan isn’t ready for first-string goalie responsibilities, this team will struggle to reach .500.
Will Flyers make playoffs? No, they’ll miss for a sixth consecutive season. Eric Lindros, beginning his third season, can emerge as the dominant player of the next era as long as his knees hold up. The constant coaching shuffle has hurt, but this year’s coach/manager team of Terry Murray and Bobby Clarke has a track record of modest success elsewhere. Ron Hextall returns in goal. Talent at forward doesn’t quite compensate for lack of depth at defense.
Can Capitals get untracked? Maybe. By trading Kevin Hatcher to Dallas for Mark Tinordi, they gained toughness, skill and leadership from a defenseman with a history of serious injuries. As a lead center, Joe Juneau is a limited star from the Pierre Turgeon mold. Gung-ho Jim Schoenfeld might be the ideal short-season coach.
Lightning in a dome Defenseman Roman Hamrlik and center Chris Gratton bring youth and skill and hope for the Tampa Bay future. But frayed veterans Gerard Gallant, Denis Savard and Petr Klima will soon join the Esposito Brothers Management Team for old-timers games.
Will Panthers Improve? As an expansion team, most of their players were castoffs with points to prove. That sort of motivation wears off in the second season. Even a topnotch goalie like John Vanbiesbrouck can’t carry a team.
Farewell to Boston Garden In their last season on Causeway Street, the Bruins will miss Al Iafrate more, if his heart, mind and injured knee aren’t in sync with the wishes of his tough-guy coach, Brian Sutter, and with the general manager Harry Sinden. Iafrate’s barely on speaking terms with the front office and won’t start the season. The bosses will have to fill their goaltending opening and keep their fingers crossed that Cam Neely has another healthy and productive season.
Another Montreal banner? Third-year coach Jacques Demers hopes to shed the reputation of a quick-fix artist who doesn’t wear well with time. Other than Patrick Roy, this team lacks stars, and you usually need more than one to win it all. Serge Savard is a shrewd general manager, not afraid to trade. Needing a scoring gunner for a short season, he’ll deal.
Pressure in Quebec The Nordiques hope Peter Forsberg benefited from the international experience that delayed his rookie year until age 21. He played in Sweden during the lockout, so he’s going to have a running start. He made Mats Sundin expendable, and that brought, in return from Toronto, Wendel Clark, with the toughness the Nordiques lacked.
Any hope for Ottawa? The Senators’ best player, Aleksei Yashin, wants out, and hasn’t reported. Their best prospect, Radek Bonk, hasn’t signed. Their highest-paid player, Alexandre Daigle, had a disappointing rookie year. They’re starting the season with three All-Stars called up from the American Hockey League. At least their new arena is going up.
Buffalo watching LaFontaine Pat LaFontaine has not fully recovered from surgery of more than a year ago, and he might miss the opener against the Rangers. Will this mean John Muckler’s adaptable team stays in last season’s defensive mode? Dominik Hasek is the best young goalie since, maybe, Patrick Roy. Alexander Mogilny is a superstar.
How far have Penguins fallen? Perhaps worse than previously thought. Goalie Tom Barrasso has a sore wrist, and Mario Lemieux is out for the season with his back and fatigue problems following Hodgkin’s disease. Rick Tocchet is in Los Angeles. If it weren’t for stars like Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy and Joe Mullen, they might not contend for first place in their division.
Will Whalers be any good? Possibly, if Pete Karmanos becomes a good new owner and Jimmy Rutherford becomes a good new general manager, and if Geoff Sanderson has a breakthrough season, and if Glen Wesley proves worth the three draft choices they traded to get him, and if Jimmy Carson revives his career, and if Chris Pronger takes seriously the potential of superstardom.
Are the Red Wings doomed? No. They’ll win the Stanley Cup this season if they sacrifice their firepower for a little more team play and if their fans are patient with goalie Mike Vernon. When second-line center Sergei Fedorov won the most valuable award, perhaps management should have realized it has poorly evaluated its personnel. Steve Yzerman, the first-line center, would be worth more in trade than he is to the Wings.
How much has Chicago declined? Plenty. Bernie Nicholls still has something to contribute, but hiring him won’t reverse a trend. It will be interesting to see what a full season together will mean for Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick. This franchise is reluctant to blend in the top talent from Europe.
Can Keenan and Hull coexist? In a normal, 84-game marathon, probably not. In a short, 48-game sprint, they might grit their teeth and endure each other. This chemistry could make for the NHL’s best soap opera. Al MacInnis brings a big shot to the power play; Esa Tikkanen and Guy Carbonneau add the ancient grit that Keenan can’t get enough of.
Two Hatcher brothers in Dallas Washington sent the Stars Kevin Hatcher, who will play alongside his younger brother, Derian, who, like Kevin, is also big and maybe even meaner. The passes of the elder Hatcher will upgrade the Dallas attack.
How far will Leafs go? Getting to the finals will be tough, even though they may score more and put on a better show. They gained a solid second center when they got Mats Sundin from Quebec to back up Doug Gilmour. They lost some toughness when they sent Wendel Clark to Quebec.
Is Selanne healthy? He seems to be, which is good for fans in Winnipeg and everywhere else. He played well in Finland during the lockout. Now that John Paddock has added general manager duties to his coaching responsibilities, he is weeding out some of Mike Smith’s Europeans, but Selanne seems secure. He wouldn’t mind hiring a few more gritty, talented Americans like Keith Tkachuk. In goal, Tim Cheveldae will try to put his confidence back together after his unfortunate Detroit exit.
All eyes on rookie goalie With Mike Vernon gone, former Spokane Chief Trevor Kidd has only 33 games of NHL experience. His rebuilt defense is filled with familiar names from other teams: Steve Chiasson, Phil Housley, James Patrick, Zarley Zalapski and Trent Yawney. None of these guys make opposing forwards afraid to cruise the slot. Among top forwards, there are durability doubts about Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts.
What’s with the Oilers? Right wing Kent Nilsson, 38 years old and out of the league since 1987, is attempting a comeback and will probably make the roster. Up front, they have Jason Arnott and little else to take the heat off Bill Ranford in goal.
Have the Kings changed? Their last owner is facing jail time for financial fraud. They’ve added toughness in veteran Rick Tocchet, rookie Matt Johnson, former Devils fighting specialist Troy Crowder and the returning Marty McSorley, who spent part of last season in Pittsburgh and most of last autumn on the collective bargaining committee. They are hoping for scoring contributions from recycled veterans like Dan Quinn and Rob Brown. On defense, they hope Darryl Sydor and Aleksei Zhitnik rebound from subpar seasons and that Rob Blake continues to grow into a Norris trophy candidate. They hope Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri have at least another year of magic in their sticks.
A star is born? Like Peter Forsberg in Quebec, Paul Kariya of the Mighty Ducks, didn’t rush himself into the NHL, and gained seasoning in international competition. He’s a Japanese-Canadian with an American college background, a bright, friendly, talented guy with what the new suits running the league might call upside marketing potential. As for the team, respectable expansion groups like this tend to step back in their second year. The lack of depth will mean plenty of ice time for Kariya to learn.
How good are the Sharks? This team has lots of international flavor, although the leg injury to Victor Kozlov is an unfortunate step backward. When they upset Detroit and almost eliminated Toronto in the playoffs last spring, they proved they were more than just a pretty uniform shirt.
Unhappy campers Pavel Bure finally reported, although they still haven’t resolved his claim for full pay on a guaranteed contract, despite the lockout. Another unhappy non-camper is Murray Craven, who hasn’t reported. Geoff Courtnall has reported but it suing the team in a contract dispute. Think how grouchy these guys would be if they had won the final game of the Stanley Cup finals.
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